Sunday, 21 October 2012

Heroes of the Soviet Union and the crash of De Havilland Flamingo R2764

Blue plaques
[Click on photo to enlarge]
On  my birthday this year we had taken the day off to go to the Roman town of Aldborough in North Yorkshire. Unfortunately the museum doesn't open on week days. Driving back home though the village of Great Ouseburn to York I noticed two blue plaques adjacent to each other. This aroused my curiosity so stopped the car to read them.

They commemorate an aircraft crash from 1942, a De Haviland Flamingo, incidentally an aircraft type I had never come across.  The passengers were Russian officials who had flown from the USSR to Dundee and then to London as part of a mission to link Russia with the Allies, rather than the Axis powers, prior to transporting Russian officials  involved in the negotiations.

There is a very informtive website with many photographs and a presentation about the events at the link below:

Reproduced from that site is the text below but PLEASE visit the site for much more information and photographs of these events.

"A few weeks before the flight that took the USSR’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to the USA, the same crew of the PE-8, under the command of Major Asyamov, undertook a training flight from Moscow to Britain, with the aim of checking how safe it was, and whether it were really possible. It has recently come to light that the PE-8 plane also carried 2 Russian Scientists (Kasatkin & Sevastianov) and Stalin’s personal translator, Vladimir Pavlov for discussions with the British Government.   It was above Great Ouseburn in Yorkshire, on 30th April 1942 there was a terrible accident that almost changed the course of WWII.

On 29th April, after flying continuously for more than 7 hours, Asyamov landed the bomber at the military airport at Tealing, a big RAF base not far from Dundee, Scotland. Immediately, the plane on a secret mission was surrounded by curious British pilots and engineers. RAF men were very interested in the Soviet PE-8, not least because the best British and American long-range planes were not up to the same technical level as the TB7, especially during the first half of WWII. The RAF didn’t have anything of the same class.

The crew was transferred to London, but their holiday there was short. The day after they arrived, the crew, in response to many requests from their British colleagues, planned to return to the military airport at Tealing to provide an excursion on the Soviet plane, and also to have a look at the new military technology being developed by the RAF in East Fortune. But only one member of the crew could fly. Pusep and Asyamov, as Pusep recalled, decided who would go on the excursion by drawing straws. Fatefully, it was Asyamov who drew the long straw. Co-pilot Pusep was to stay in London and attend the 1st May celebrations being held by the Soviet Embassy together with the Military Mission in London.

After having inspected the British aircraft at East Fortune, the DH95 Flamingo (number R2764, No. 24 Air squadron based at Hendon), and its 6 passengers, including Asyamov, gathered for the return journey to London. There were no portents of the coming tragedy. The weather forecast was for sunny and practically still weather. Following inspection and readying of the aircraft for flight, the Captain took off for London at 4.25pm. It should be noted that the captain of the British plane was one of the most experienced pilots the RAF had. At the time of the accident Pilot Officer I. Ramsay had clocked up 3755 air hours piloting different types of planes. During his career he had piloted aircraft carrying famous passengers such as Prince Bernhard, Lord Sherwood, Sir Archibald Sinclair, and Lord Louis Mountbatten. The 24th Air Squadron was reserved for undertaking internal flights and as a rule carried VIPs including members of the royal family and members of the Cabinet.

Above Yorkshire, the right engine exploded. According to the report drawn up by the commission that investigated the accident, the passengers did not manage to use any of the life-saving equipment: all the parachutes were untouched. There was no chance of survival. The aircraft fell from a height of 600 metres (2000 ft) not far from the village of Great Ouseburn, between the towns of Easingwold and Knaresborough in North Yorkshire. The blast from the stricken craft was so powerful that parts were scattered for up to 3 miles around the crash site. The joint Soviet / UK commission under Chief Inspector Vernon Drown found the following: “The cause of the accident was an internal defect in the engine, its destruction and the subsequent ignition of fuel vapour, which led to the disintegration of the wing”. According to another version: “a snapped connecting rod broke the crank case. Parts of the connecting rod and the crank case pierced the fuel tank. Inside the wing, the fuel vapour mixed with air and ignited, which blew the wing to bits.”

The four crew members of the Flamingo and all the passengers died as a result of the accident. In total, the tragedy took the lives of 10 men. They included: Major Sergei Asyamov, members of the Soviet Military Mission to the UK: Assistant to the Head of the Military Mission on Aviation issues Colonel Grigory Pugachev, Assistant Military Attache Major Boris Shvetsov, Secretary to the Military Mission Peter Baranov, Officer Francis Wilton, Officer Kenneth Edwards, Pilot Officer Iain Ramsay, Sergeant James Smith, Sergeant Alan Stripp and Engineer James Lewis.

Because of the highly secret nature of the operation, the British press did not report these tragic events at the time. No information on the crew and members of the Soviet mission could be found in the British archives or the archives of the Imperial War Museum. It is likely that these documents are still sealed away as “Secret”. There was nothing in the media about these events."

Another good site with remnants from the crash site, biographies of the occupants of the aircraft and associated photographs is:

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The extinct silphium plant

Several months ago a small (15mm) Greek bronze coin came my way that has resisted identification until now (thanks to Dane Kurth). It turns out is a coin from Cyrene in Cyrenaica with the helmeted head of Athena on one side while on the other are two stalks of the silphium plant emerging from a single base (BMC Cyrene 202-3).

It is, for me, the silphium plant that is of interest. The exact identity of silphium is unclear. It is commonly believed to be a now-extinct plant of the genus Ferula, perhaps a variety of giant fennel. It was used in classical antiquity as a rich seasoning and also as a medicine. It was the essential item of trade from the ancient North African city of Cyrene, and was so critical to the Cyrenian economy that most of their coins bore a picture of the plant. The valuable product was the plant's resin.

Many medical uses were ascribed to the plant. It was said that it could be used to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, aches and pains, warts, and all kinds of maladies. It has been speculated that the plant may also have functioned as a contraceptive, based partly on Pliny's statement that it could be used "to promote the menstrual discharge". Many species in the parsley family have estrogenic properties, and some, such as wild carrot, have been found to work as abortifacients (chemicals that terminate a pregnancy). Given this, it is quite possible that the plant was pharmacologically active in the prevention or termination of pregnancy.

The cause of silphium's extinction is not entirely known. Overgrazing combined with overharvesting may have led to its extinction. It may be that when Roman provincial governors took over power from Greek colonists they over-farmed silphium and rendered the soil unable to yield the type that was said to be of such medicinal value. Theophrastus reports that the type of ferula specifically referred to as "silphium" was odd in that it grew only in the wild and could not be successfully grown as a crop in tilled soil. Pliny reported that the last known stalk of silphium found in Cyrenaica was given to the Emperor Nero "as a curiosity".